Pediatric osteosarcoma

Charley fights cancer by spreading the love

Girl sitting up in bed, smiling, with bottom of foot in foreground, with a sock on that says, "Peace out, chemo."

It’s hard to imagine two words more unfairly used together than “childhood cancer.” It’s also hard to imagine a kid who has better handled her cancer diagnosis than Charley Gauf, a spunky, fun-loving 8-year-old girl from Milton, Wisconsin.

Charley started limping and experiencing increasing pain in her knee during the spring of 2023 as she was finishing 2nd grade. Her mom, Mariah, thought Charley might have torn a muscle, but after seeing a physical therapist later that summer, the news was much worse. It was osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. The tumor was located just above her left knee.

“I was trying to keep it together for her when we got the news,” Mariah recalls. “She was sitting in my lap and tears were running down my face, but I quickly wiped them away so she wouldn’t see.”

At their first appointment at American Family Children’s Hospital, Charley, Mariah and Charley’s grandmother were sitting down with Dr. Tess Woodring, a pediatric oncology fellow who works closely with Dr. Margo Hoover-Regan, a UW Health Kids cancer specialist.

“Dr. Woodring went over the whole plan,” Mariah recalls. “Charley would need to come to the hospital every week — usually from Thursday to Sunday — for chemotherapy. I also have two younger kids at home, so my husband, Dakota, and I were lucky that both of our parents live nearby because they’ve been incredibly helpful.”

Everyone gravitates to Charley

As Charley got to know the hospital staff, her outgoing personality blossomed. Everyone who met her loved her. She even began welcoming new patients to the unit and making sure they were doing ok.

“It didn’t matter what age the other patients were,” says Maggie Goldbach, a child life specialist in the childhood cancer unit. “Infants, toddlers, or teens, she just made friends so easily.”

“Charley infuses joy, creativity and artistry into everything she touches along the way,” adds Dr. Woodring.

Charley’s zest for fun and life came through in many ways, such as:

The creative decorations adorning her hospital room;

The smile on her face as she shot paint through a syringe at visiting UW Badger athletes (a hospital sanctioned activity);

Her delight while trying out skin-care regimens, especially when male nurses would join her;

Her fondness for Archie, a therapy dog at American Family Children’s Hospital who brings much happiness to patients;

Her massive following on Tik Tok, which features countless videos of Charley;

Her love of all things “gothic and cutesy,” as Dr. Woodring says, such as The Addams Family series on Netflix.

“Charley is a big fan of the character Wednesday Addams, so she asked everyone to wear black on Wednesdays,” says Kim Sue Lamster, a social worker based in the unit. “She also loved to dance with members of her care team as Mariah filmed clips for Tik Tok.

Partial leg amputation didn’t stop Charley

Charley and her family knew there was a strong possibility that part of her leg would need to be amputated to reduce the likelihood of future recurrence of her cancer. Once doctors discovered another tumor in the bottom of her leg, there was no choice. Amputation to just above the knee was performed in November 2023. Six months later, she began to walk with a prosthetic.

Moreover, because Charley shares a rare genetic condition with her mom and brother that increases one’s chances of getting cancer, Charley will take a pill version of chemotherapy indefinitely, even though she completed in-hospital chemotherapy in April 2024. She also will have imaging done frequently to watch for any signs of recurrence.

It's a roller coaster of emotions when any family member has cancer, but especially so with a child. Still, the Gaufs are incredibly grateful for the endless support they have received from family, friends, the Milton community and their UW Health Kids care team.

“I miss the hospital staff,” Mariah says. “While this is something nobody would want to go through, you feel so lucky to have so much support when you really need it.”

As she goes to physical therapy in the summer of 2024, Charley’s goal is to be walking before the fall, when her family will take her on a Make-A-Wish visit to Disney World.

“Charley is the epitome of resilience,” says Maggie Goldbach, the child life specialist. “She copes by spreading the love, wrapping people around her and keeping the love going.”